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Close New Caledonia independence vote raises questions for France


French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (L) delivers a speech on November 5, 2018 next to French Overseas Minister Annick Girardin during a visit in Noumea, a day after islanders on the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia rejected independence in a referendum that revealed weaker-than-expected support for Paris in the resource-rich and strategic outpost. – On the final count, 56.4 percent of people rejected the proposition that New Caledonia — some 18,000 kilometres (11,000 miles) from the French mainland — become independent. Turnout was high at 80.63 percent. (Photo by Theo Rouby / AFP)

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe flew into New Caledonia on Monday hailing the Pacific territory’s rejection of independence — but the closer-than-expected referendum raises questions over France’s grip on the strategic islands.

Final results show 56.7 percent voted to stay French in Sunday’s closely watched referendum on the archipelago, which sits on a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel, a vital electronics component.

The result was much tighter than the 63 to 75 “no” vote polls had predicted, prompting questions over support for France in one of its overseas territories dotted around the globe.

Geopolitical expert Pierre-Christophe Pantz said the results would “force the anti-separatists to look at their notes again”.

“It’s clear that we can’t talk about things with a 43 percent vote (for independence) in the same way that we would if it was 30 percent,” he said.

The pro-France campaign focused on the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) Paris pours into local coffers every year, while some pointed to the need to balance rising Chinese ambitions in the Pacific.

Philippe, who arrived from Vietnam for talks with both sides in the independence debate, nonetheless hailed the vote as “a true democratic success” which saw communities discuss the issue “without tearing themselves apart”.

French President Emmanuel Macron also expressed “immense pride” in the result, calling it “a sign of confidence in the French Republic, in its future and its values”.

Supporters of independence for the islands, fringed by stunning beaches, are mostly ethnic Kanaks, but they make up less than half of the population of 269,000 people.

White residents — descendants of early European settlers as well as more recent arrivals — overwhelmingly want to stay French, joined by other Pacific minorities.

The referendum was the culmination of a 1998 peace deal which followed a quasi-civil war between Kanaks and whites that left more than 70 dead in the 1980s.

The “Noumea deal” has also paved the way for the islands to become increasingly autonomous, with wide areas of policy under the control of local authorities.

Crucially for separatists, the deal allows for two further votes on independence before 2022 — meaning, they insist, that they could still achieve their dream of splitting from France.

Eyeing a second vote already
On Sunday, pro-independence leaders vowed to “go all the way” in pushing for a new referendum.

Patrick Jean, a former law professor and expert on the 1998 deal, predicted that “positions are going to harden” on both sides.

“I wish Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe the best of luck in trying to convince the FLNKS (the Kanak Liberation Front) to give up on the idea of further referenda ahead of the May 2019 elections,” he said.

Those elections will see New Caledonia vote for new members of its local Congress.

Pro-independence factions currently hold 25 of the 54 seats, but just a third — 18 votes — are needed to trigger a new referendum on independence.

Philippe invited all political factions to Paris in December for talks with the government, “to collectively draw conclusions from the referendum”.

Turnout reached 80.63 percent in Sunday’s vote, the highest ever seen in the territory.

But analysts point out that the Kanak vote, while high, was weakened by the fact that one pro-independence faction urged voters to abstain rather than take part in a “joke” referendum.

In the eastern islands, where Kanaks form a large majority, voter turnout was 20 points below the overall turnout.

“The separatists are even more determined than before to seek a second and third referendum,” said separatist congressman Louis Mapou.

“We’ll start getting the bride ready tomorrow — she’ll be even more beautiful in 2020.”

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